When it comes to removing a patient's gallbladder with a key-hole surgery, a Cochrane Review has deemed the aid of a robotic assistant as safe as a human assistant.
The reviewers said that there was no difference between robot- and human-assisted surgeries in terms of morbidity, the need to switch to open surgery, total operating time, or length of stay in hospital.
In key-hole surgery, the surgeon sees inside the patient using a long camera introduced through a 1 cm abdominal cut, which guides the doctor in using the surgical instruments introduced through other small cuts (ranging from 0.5 to 1 cm).
The assistant's job is to move the camera, which acts as the surgeon's eyes.
The assistant's job has come to be performed by a range of robots these days, and the current study looked at trials involving 'Endoassist', 'Aesop', 'Passist' and 'Zeus'.
With a view to determining how well robots were performing, a team of researchers considered data from five randomized trials that included a total of 453 patients.
The results showed a marginal, though not statistical, decrease in the numbers of gallbladders that burst during robot-assisted surgery, but overall there was no appreciable difference.
"We need more trials that see whether the success rates using robotic assistants increase once surgeons have more experience using them," said lead researcher Kurinchi Gurusamy, who works at the University Department of Surgery at the Royal Free Hospital, London.
The assistance of robots attains significance as it means that a surgeon may perform an emergency operation without having to wait for a human assistant to become available.
"Robotic assistants seem to be an exciting possibility, but we are not yet at the stage that they should be used as replacements for human assistants," says Gurusamy.